JOHANNESBURG - An international controversy has erupted over the fate of 30 elephants from an overpopulated reserve in neighboring Botswana that were tamed with an eye toward selling them to zoos and sanctuaries.
Animal welfare groups charge that they were beaten routinely by Indonesian trainers, or mahouts, who were hired by their owner, Riccardo Ghiazza, an Italian. His idea for taming the elephants resulted from a liberalization last year of rules governing elephant trading.
Safari operators fear the controversy will deal irreparable damage to the region's tourist reputation while conservation organizations worry that animal rights groups will use the elephant's plight to reopen debate on the trading regulations.
They were changed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to allow limited commercial trade in elephant products and live animals.
The case also puts at risk a growing free-market school of conservation, born in southern Africa, which argues that animals living near desperate humans only will survive in the long run if humans can profit through hunting, live animal sales and tourism.
Such activity, permitted for elephants under CITES over bitter opposition from many animal welfare groups, is viewed in most of southern Africa as the only hope of dealing with a burgeoning elephant population.
The 30 elephants, ages 2 to 7 years, were chased by helicopters in Botswana, taken from their mothers and shipped to …